The University of Massachusetts Amherst

3 Questions with UMass 3MT Finalist Amber Vayo, PhD Candidate in Political Science

Amber Vayo, PhD candidate in political scienceAmber Vayo, PhD candidate in political science.
Monday, March 15, 2021

The University of Massachusetts Amherst Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition is a highly anticipated event on campus. And while finalists won't be competing in person on campus this year, the 3MT will be held virtually on March 18, from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. We caught up with Amber Vayo, PhD candidate in political science, to get a preview of her 3MT research and presentation, and lessons learned along the way.

You’ve condensed your research into a three-minute elevator pitch. Can you distill it even further for us in a few short sentences?

At the most basic level, what I do is listen to people's birth stories, and ask them about whether they were treated with informed consent, whether they were pushed or forced into things they didn't want, and basically, what was going on with their bodily autonomy while they were giving birth. Broadly speaking, what I'm trying to do is look at the ways birth is not only a personal or medical event, but a legal, and even political one. 

How did you get involved in your research and why are you passionate about it?

I got admitted to UMasss thinking I was going to study the Supreme Court and my first legal studies/political science love: constitutional law. But when I chose to have my second daughter at home (mostly to avoid a repeat c-section), I started reading how this was illegal in some states, and that got me really thinking about how rights operate differently for people who are pregnant or who give birth. If you've ever had the baby belly, you know that total strangers feel ok trying to police what you're doing (from drinking coffee to lifting your arms above your head, and so much else!). A pregnant person's access to their rights to bodily autonomy just aren't the same as for other people, and I wanted to get into that.

I am passionate about it because through my own work as a doula and a childbirth educator, I've talked to so many people who have had traumatic birth experiences, and the medical literature shows how common this is and how much it hurts parent-child bonding and chestfeeding, increases rates of postpartum depression and PTSD, and has even made some people chose not to have more children. These are issues that affect literally every person on this planet, because even if you don't give birth, you were born.  So, I want to work towards changing the way we think about and talk about childbirth so that every family can have the best chance at not only a physically health, but a mentally healthy, start in life. 

What’s one surprising thing you’ve learned from either this process, your research, or both?

I was surprised how many people are starting to think about their rights to consent or withhold consent during birth. I was also really surprised by just how much moms, particularly, were willing to go out of their way to make time to talk to me, even during the pandemic. I had a Zoom interview with one mom who was hiding in the bathroom so her kids wouldn't interrupt her (they did, anyway) and one who interviewed with me while driving to pick up her children from school. I had put out a call on Facebook saying that I needed help because COVID had derailed my research, and moms just started showing up like the Avengers saving the day and helping me out. I am just in awe of their commitment to help a total stranger and deeply grateful to them all. 

Last year political science PhD candidate Kira Tait won the event will her talk "Roadblocks to Access: Perceptions of Law in Post-Apartheid South Africa." Her research has been informed by her interests in comparative politics, public policy and socioeconomic development, and a broader interest in the politics of developing countries.

The UMass Amherst (3MT) celebrates the research accomplishments of our graduate students while helping students develop their presentation and communication skills. These popular competitions have become a global phenomenon by challenging graduate students to communicate the significance of their research to a general audience, all in three minutes or less.